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Summer School (1987)

Class Precedent

I watched Carl Reiner's Summer School religiously as a kid.  It ruined high school for me, as did Saved by the Bell and Beverly Hills, 90210.  All the candy-coated junk TV of my youth convinced me that my teenage years would be marked by wacky teachers and twenty-five-year-old classmates who all fit snuggly into categories.  In my fantasy adolescence, I imagined a hip, scripted world that had just as many life lessons as book lessons, and where I’d only have to remember the names of eight to ten classmates.

Today, the television shows don’t hold up very well.  It’s partly the fashion; it’s partly the painful flashbacks to sophomore year, where I wore tightly shellacked sideburns and skulked the halls with a fixed Luke Perry squint; but mostly I can’t stand to watch those shows because they weren’t really about high school.  Academia was just the skin for relationship melodrama and Just-Say-No moralizing (or as the Zack Attack might say, “There’s No Hope with Dope!”).

Summer School is different.  Watching it last week for the first time in twenty years, I could see instantly why I’d responded to it.  It’s a movie about teaching.  Best yet, it’s an oddball movie about teaching; not raunchy enough to qualify as a Porky’s rip-off, and not socially conscious enough to be lumped in with Teachers, Stand and Deliver or Lean on Me, Summer School stands alone as the AV club nerd in the Hollywood high school caste system.

Like the best high-concept comedies, the premise is in the title.  A California gym teacher named Mr. Shoop (Mark Harmon) gets roped into babysitting a group of misfit kids who failed Remedial English. In addition to keeping the rejects in class and teaching them how to read, he must also contend with slimy Vice Principal Gills (Robin Thomas)—who wants nothing more than to ruin his prospects for tenure—and the disapproving glares of the smart, hot teacher next door, Robin Bishop (Kirstie Alley).  Shoop’s mandate is to help every one of his students to pass the state’s basic skills test by the end of the summer, or face losing his job.

As any action movie is only as good as its villain, high school comedies are only as good as their wacky students.  Summer School’s cast and writers tweak their performances just enough to elevate their characters above stereotypes.  The Dumb Jock (Patrick Labyorteaux) isn’t the class bully; he’s sensitive and insecure, and finds a kindred spirit in the Pregnant Girl (Shawnee Smith).  The Spastic Nerd (Richard Steven Horvitz) shows signs of being a brilliant—if constantly nauseous—diplomat.  The Hot Italian Exchange Student (Fabiana Udenio) is bubbly, but not dumb; sexy, but not a sex object—and she falls in Friend Love with the film’s stand-out screw-ups, Chainsaw and Dave (Dean Cameron and Gary Riley, respectively).

Ah, yes, Chainsaw and Dave.  When I was younger, I wanted nothing more than to be one of them; funny, spontaneous, and obsessed with horror movies, these two are the poster children for unapplied talent.  During a field trip to the petting zoo, they burst out of a barn, screaming and pulling killer chickens off their half-eaten faces.  It’s all a gag, of course—nothing compared to what they pull off later in the film—but it’s a delightfully unexpected bit that walks the line of gross and cute.

The movie is just as much about Mr. Shoop, though, and the ways in which teaching forces him to grow up.  In an effort to get his kids to show up and participate every day, he bribes them with one huge favor apiece.

These favors range from teaching a girl how to drive to acting as a tackling dummy to letting the Shy Girl (Courtney Thorne-Smith) stay at his house after her family boots her off the couch.  As he gets to know each of his students and helps them find direction, he realizes that his days of surfing, chasing young girls, and sharing out-of-the-jar scoops of peanut butter and jelly with his dog, Wonder Mutt, just aren’t satisfying anymore.  Shoop is directionless but really smart, and he uses his charm and wit to challenge his kids to do great things.

I’m going to skip over the Shoop/Robin/Gills love triangle because it is essentially a Xerox of the Melon/Turner/Barbay triangle in Back to School.  The interplay between characters is sharp and funny, but you’ll find no surprises in the story specifics.

What is surprising is the film’s ending, which hinges on The Big Test.  Summer School has a Rocky climax, where the audience expects the underdog to win big and celebrate as the screen fades to black.  But Rocky doesn’t win at the end, and not all of Shoop’s students pass the basic skills test.

It’s the perfect wrap-up to a movie about people learning to love learning, and it made me think of all the sad teaching-to-the-test stories from the last decade.  It’s not practical or possible to ask that every teacher get so involved in their students’ lives—or to expect that doing so would have a revolutionary difference in every case—but Summer School offers a cozy fantasy world where teenagers are invited to explore their potential and encouraged to be themselves while pursuing their dreams.

That’s a lot of lofty prose describing a movie whose funniest exchange is probably this:

Shoop:  From now on, you eat English; you sleep English; you are English. 

Dave:  Oy!  Then pass the crumpets, old boy!

Summer School is warm and hopeful, and should probably be avoided by any kid who wishes to keep the high school experience in proper perspective.

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